Democracy is not just about voting


As we watch fledgling democracies struggling to survive, facing coups or demands for government change between elections, we need to remind ourselves of the characteristics of successful democratic government.

In  mature democracies the sensible elected officials understand they have to represent all their constituents, not just those who agreed with them and voted for them. Any constituent deserves honest and independent representation in a just cause. Any constituent has a right to their view to be heard and considered, even where it clearly disagrees with the ruling party or the local MP.

A successful democratic government understands that it cannot just govern in the interests of the majority or the largest minority that happened to vote for it. There are times when an elected government has to do things its own supporters do not like, and times when it has to adapt to moods and shifts in opinion that it did not wish to see or had not been  able to forecast. Successful  democratic leaders draw support more widely than from their own party, and succeed in  persuading the opposition to alter its approach and not repeal or alter what they do in power when eventually the government changes.

Mr Miliband’s approach of returning  to his left of centre comfort zone and support base is causing difficulties for him and his party as they seek the 40% plus in the polls that opposition parties usually need to offer a hope of winning an election outright. His latest proposal on JSA and young people in need of work is a sign that he is now looking for headlines that are different from his normal Guardian road tested policies, though the detail is disappointing and adds little to what the coalition is already trying to do to help the young into work by assisting them find apprenticeships and pick up the skills they need. Labour are finding it difficult to frame policies on welfare and migration that appeal and assist in tackling these big problems.


  1. Mark B
    June 20, 2014

    Assuming that we actually live in a democracy, which I for one do not think we do, how can it be said that MP’s represent their constituents when, the Party Whip system commands obedience, both to the Party and the Executive / Leader over and above the people ? ie 650 persons vs +60 million.

    How can an MP represent his constituents on an issue when, he maybe a Minister who, has to follow Government policy or, lose his position ?

    How can a Political Party make manifesto pledges, with no real intent on keeping them, and no means to hold them to account over non-compliance ?

    How can a Parliament be said to act democratically, when it surrenders power to another without the free consent of the people ?

    How is it possible that, a Government can be also part of the Legislature and vice versa ? Is there not a conflict of interest ?

    How can a Parliament impose new and varying forms of taxation and laws, on matters that have not been put in a manifesto or discussed prior to an election ?

    How is it, that a small body of people can decide whether or not we are to go to war with another nation, even when that nation has not in anyway threatened us ? Yet, we the people, are expected to pay for this in both blood and treasure.

    Is it not the first duty of any government in a fully functioning and thriving democracy, to protect the nation and is people from enemies, both foreign and domestic ? Yet, we dismantle our armed forces and allow those to enter our lands and, undermine and openly threaten our way of life.

    Mr. Redwood MP sir, you have a very romanticized view of our so called, ‘Democracy’. Prey that you do not fall on harder times and suffer as some in this land do. Reality can be a bit of a shock to the system, and I fear for you in your advancing years.

    1. Roger Farmer
      June 20, 2014

      You ask some very pertinent questions which would benefit from JR’s detailed answers.
      I maintain that the Middle East with the exception of Israel has no conception of democracy even though the word comes from that part of the World. For example take Egypt. They have an election and a majority vote for a fundamentalist Muslim party. This party then try to rule in the light of their beliefs alone and many of the rest of the population do not like it, create unrest and the army are forced to take over and rule for Egypt as a whole
      The UK government of the past four years has been an arrogant shambles as your submission points out. Democracy in the UK is used as a front to pursue policies that have no mandate from the public at large. The current lot have been doing it on the back of an envelope. incompetently, and against the wishes of the people.
      In this age of computers and instant communication there is no excuse for the prefects club operating in Westminster. Mps could argue a particular point of view and we could vote on it every week, that is democracy. How long do we have to put up with the current none sense.

  2. Lifelogic
    June 20, 2014

    A Tory government should do what works. Namely small efficient government, doing only those few thing that governments do best and freedom of the individual. Stop distorting markets with green, train and other daft subsidies, reduced the payments that encourage the feckless, easy hire and fire, fewer daft regulations and get out of the EU.

    These are in the interests of everyone, but perhaps the few in the state sector currently living of the backs or the private sector, while delivering almost nothing of any value.

    The voters with vote for this when they see how well it works. Alas Cameron kicked his supporters in the teeth and blew it, it is rather too late now to recover.

    1. Bazman
      June 20, 2014

      How do you explain private companies working for the state? Are they parasitic?
      As for little work of any use. See what happens when you cut the passport offices staff. Apply that to infrastructure law and order rand education. The do nothing is landlords scrounging ever high rents off the state. We need to pull the rug out from under them by more council house building.

  3. Anonymous
    June 20, 2014

    Getting elected and then doing things against the majority will is done because you don’t trust the majority.

    This is why the majority feel utterly disenfranchised. And what’s more ignoring them DOESN’T work. Hadn’t you noticed what an utter mess the country is in ?

    Democracy is about listening to majority will – even if you don’t like it. You have it completely the wrong way around .

    1. Jerry
      June 20, 2014

      @Anonymous: “Democracy is about listening to majority will – even if you don’t like it.”

      Indeed, but that doesn’t mean those who SHOUT the loudest or protest the most (a mistake more often made by the Labour Party), most constituency politicians will have an ear to the ground, will know what the majority will is, even ‘safe seats’ because after all they are not safe for no reason.

      1. Anonymous
        June 20, 2014

        ‘Safe’ seats are in tribal voting areas. They confuse the name of a party with what it actually stands for.

        Many aspects of Britain are utterly insane.

        This is down to the contempt for majority opinion and the appeasement of strong minority interest groups.

        1. Jerry
          June 20, 2014

          @Anonymous: ‘Safe’ seats are in tribal voting areas. They confuse the name of a party with what it actually stands for.

          Tell that to Michael Portillo, to give but one example of a supposedly tribal safe seat gone AWOL, Tony Benn was another when he lost his Bristol seat.

    2. Lifelogic
      June 20, 2014

      Worse still, the Majority on most issues like green crap, expensive energy, HS2, tax rates, selective immigration and the EU are clearly right and Cameron totally wrong.

      Furthermore Cameron does not even dare to try to make the case for his daft position, he just says one thing to the electorate (before elections) and does the complete opposite.

      It is totally contemptible, has he come up with any reasons for not being a Greater Switzerland on Sea (and twice as rich) yet?

      1. Bazman
        June 20, 2014

        You have always refused to answer the point that Switzerland is a highly regulated, taxed, snooping busy body middle class society. Care to tell us why? Is it better than your fantasy tax haven?

        1. Edward2
          June 21, 2014

          Switzerland is highly taxed you say Baz.
          My quick look on the internet shows Switzerland has well below the average EU rates.

          1. Bazman
            June 22, 2014

            It has a highly complex tax system and generous benefits. All of which deluded right whingers hate.

          2. Edward2
            June 23, 2014

            Plainly you are wrong Baz as the report I have shown you and other articles found easily on the web say.
            Its tax system may be complex but ours takes some beating.
            And is there a nation that has a tax system which is not complex?

            I like generous benefits especially when they go to those who have been burdened with disability or have been paying in to the system and due to bad fortune need short term help.

            PS Can left wingers be deluded or is it just that they smugly feel they are always right.

          3. Bazman
            June 26, 2014

            The main point is that Switzerland is a middle class country like Germany and you simplistic table shows little. Swiss tax law is complex with taxes like dog tax and take a look at the TV licence. The cost of TV and radio licenses in Switzerland is the highest in Europe at 462 francs a year ($524) broken down into 169 francs ($192) for radio and 293 francs ($334) for television.
            Cars depend on which canton and which vehicle. Goes on and on.
            A busy bodies paradise to boot. Like Germany.
            Do tell us how this is all going to work here? It’s not.

  4. JoolsB
    June 20, 2014

    John, Let’s not kid ourselves the UK is a democracy when post devolution it is anything but. The Tories won the popular vote in England in 2005 and they won a 63 seat majority in England in 2010 yet it seems what England wants and votes for counts for nothing even though those other countries of the UK that overturned England’s wishes have a second vote, unlike England, to choose their own separate self determining governments/assemblies taking quite different decisions from the government they have decided should govern England.

    What does it matter who England votes for when UK Governments of all colours and it’s 650 self serving UK MPs continue to deliberately deny England the government of it’s choosing?

    No need for the Tories to feel smug about Miliband losing his core support because so is Cameron. I wonder why that is!

    1. Timaction
      June 20, 2014

      The legacy parties are loosing their vote as the truth is finally out and passing to the people. They can see the visible changes in their communities daily. They can see the ineffectiveness of all the legacy parties who have given up their right to Govern to the EU. Taxed to support foreign peoples health, education and housing needs.
      We don’t have democracy when we have over 70% of our laws made abroad and no control over our borders. We want our Country back and sovereignty and democracy back here. Only one party will deliver that. The renegotiation hogwash is against all existing treaties for an ever closer union. Patriotism starts and ends with one party only!

    2. Anonymous
      June 20, 2014

      What a sorry state of affairs for most conservative people that their only real choice is to keep a politician out (Miliband) rather than to be able to vote for one that they’d like in.

  5. margaret brandreth-j
    June 20, 2014

    I am not sure that what leaders say has as much sway as you think.If pockets are looking healthier in a particular parliament then they will be voted in again. By contrast if there is no general financial improvement another party will be voted in.

    There are a few issues which often count such as help with nursery fees , but if the government doesn’t deliver the will be out again. Voters , in contrast to my parents , mother being left of left and father being blue through and through are fickle and will not stay where they are not wanted in the democratic process.

    For example Manchester under a labour term threw me out of the NHS by contractual mishandling and undermined all the service I had given to the ordinary citizen. I will never vote for labour again.

    Europe and immigration are so important along the same vein as my experience , where if the Brits are not wanted they will not vote for those who disregard their life’s input and have given priority to other countries for employment etc.

  6. Jerry
    June 20, 2014

    “[Mr Miliband’s] latest proposal on JSA and young people in need of work is a sign that he is now looking for headlines that are different from his normal Guardian road tested policies,”

    I would suggest that he has, intentionally or not, totally disaffected the majority of Guardian reader types, the young lazy or activist radical types will be hit by these proposals whilst the working middle class, trying to do the right thing, will be unduly hit.

    “though the detail is disappointing and adds little to what the coalition is already trying to do to help the young into work by assisting them find apprenticeships and pick up the skills they need.”

    Indeed the detail of the Labour proposal is disappointing, but were do you get the idea that the current government are assisting the young to find apprenticeships and pick up the skills they need, unless you are talking about only the 19 and under age group. To someone over that DfE funding cut-off age, perhaps considering a college course independant of any formal apprenticeship, wishing to try and kick start a career in a practical trade, the prospect of student loans is even more frightening than it is for University students. Yes I know that the tuition fees and and thus repayments are less but so are the average overall earnings prospects.

    Finally, to pick up on your comment further up, and septate from the comments above; “There are times when an elected government has to do things its own supporters do not like, and times when it has to adapt to moods and shifts in opinion that it did not wish to see or had not been able to forecast.”

    Can you please make sure that a copy of your blog today is seen by the DWP, whilst rightly popular amongst traditional Tory voters, I can see policies coming out of that single department as being the cause of much loss of support from the floating and perhaps even some usually stable Tory voters. I’m sure you know who I am talking about and the sort of policies I am talking about, so I don’t need to trouble your editors pencil by naming them, although I will add that no one is suggesting that the genuinely lazy should be given an easy time, certainly not, just that some do need to be cut a little more slack than are currently being given!

  7. Nick
    June 20, 2014

    n mature democracies the sensible elected officials understand

    Understand what? Keeping things secret like the debts?

  8. Excalibur
    June 20, 2014

    I just want to say thank you, John, for your tolerance of the broad range of views expressed in these columns. I know that many are not shared by you (perhaps not least my own) and some are highly critical and indeed vitriolic in expressing their views. I reiterate, it is a privilege to be able to express one’s opinions here. Thank you.

    1. formula57
      June 20, 2014

      Agreed Excalibur. This blog is a significant contribution to the body politic in this country, not least for the reason you state and also for the erudition and insight of our host in his original posts.

    2. M Davis
      June 20, 2014

      Hear! Hear!

  9. Brian Tomkinson
    June 20, 2014

    JR: “Labour are finding it difficult to frame policies on welfare and migration that appeal and assist in tackling these big problems.”
    How is your party doing with its election pledge (which it must have known was not possible whilst we are in the EU) of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands?
    How about welfare policies? Today the BBC reports : “The government could breach its self-imposed cap on welfare spending as a result of the cost of the main sickness benefit, leaked documents say.”

  10. Iain Moore
    June 20, 2014

    No its not just about voting, key to democracy is the daily accountability of paying taxes to support the Government’s policy agenda.

    What is surprising is that the political class, who you might think are aware of key aspects of democracy and accountability are in fact clueless. For when you might think they would be hyper-averse to separating taxation from spending, they are the worst culprits.

    They have put our local democracy on welfare and wonder why they have to control and limit Council spending.

    They have created devolved assemblies, that have also been put on welfare, and wonder why the nationalists are giving them the run around on spending.

    They have given the EU legislative power and wonder why they catch it in the neck, for all the rules and regulations the EU spreads around like confetti.

    They wonder why , when they are bankrolling developing countries with oodles of our Aid money, the local population don’t hold their governments to account, and just vote on tribal loyalties, and what a politician can give them.

    And they wonder why , when countries have all the resources they could ever wish for, they are more than likely to be run by despotic regimes, who don’t have to worry about accountability, for the oil wealth can buy them a security services to keep the population under control, or give them the funds to buy off the population.

  11. Mike Stallard
    June 20, 2014

    Since the IRA got to work on Mrs Thatcher, the Prime Ministers have withdrawn more and more into Downing Street which is gated off and which is full, I understand, of unelected people discussing policy. The main decisions, as I understand it, are taken by “the Quad” and then relayed to the hoi polloi. I know all this through “The Thick of It”.
    Then there are the backstairs EU Directives, passed without scrutiny into statutory instruments. Ministers just nod them through. And what a lot of ministers all very careful with their climb up the greasy pole! What an unwieldy cabinet! And how secret it all seems to be.
    These Ministers/ Shadow Ministers of all stripes seem to pass from meeting to meeting, from photo op to photo op without bothering with parliament at all. And the MPs are turning into amateur social services with their “surgeries” and caring and sharing visits.
    The party bases have all but disappeared now and the internet hums with discussion. So long (I am taken off both Conservative Home and Labour List) as you don’t discuss unpopular things and toe the party line that is.
    Result: a bubble. And Nick Robinson with glinting glasses gathers gossip gloating.

    Hence the appalling mistakes which this government – and the last – made/make. Without proper discussion from elected people responsible to the people who elected them, what can you expect?
    And how do you deal with it?

  12. Bert Young
    June 20, 2014

    Accepting the responsibility of representing the people also means denying the party whip at times . The five year term of a government does see major shifts in public opinion during its tenure and these shifts have to be accommodated . During the past 5 years the increasing numbers of immigrants and the rulings of the European Courts of Human Rights and Justice , have created a level of indignation and concern quite different to that existing at the beginning . UKIP has raised its voice and given a very different weight to this concern ; this change has not been reflected in the way we are governed and made a nonsense of the role of the House of Lords . The over-ruling of the Private Member’s Bill that highlighted the need to re-define our relationship with the EU typified the weakness of the Governmental system and added to the public’s feelings of helplessness . MPs would be better off standing as ” independent ” making their own views and priorities known to the electorate when standing ; once elected they would be free to group with whoever they liked according to their own principles and promises . Being generally aligned to one political party more than another should be a matter of the MP’s own choice ; it should not follow that they must obey that Party’s whip .

  13. Elliot Kane
    June 20, 2014

    I think that the most important consideration in any Democracy is that there should be a single demos: a perception by the voters that they are one people under one government that, however imperfect, is at least elected by their fellow citizens.

    The biggest problems in any Democratic system always seem to arise when parts of the population of any nation do not feel that they are a part of the same demos as the rest, because whoever wins in any election the result is that one section of the population feels conquered rather than governed. This is the problem in Ukraine currently, as well as the fuel that feeds the fires of much conflict in the Middle East and elsewhere. It is the problem which split Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and many others.

    It is also a growing problem in the EU, of course. The more nations are forced into ‘ever closer union’ against the wishes of their peoples, the worse the problems of population alienation are likely to become.

  14. Max Dunbar
    June 20, 2014

    Would it not be more accurate to describe our system as an oligarchy?
    Most peoples’ votes count for nothing at a General Election under our electoral system and power resides within the elites of the two main parties. You mention ‘mature democracies’ and presumably include ours in this category. But we can go back as well as forward, and with the massive influx of people from abroad who do not share our attitudes and don’t care, along with deliberate attempts to subvert the institutions that we allegedly fought for in two world wars can we really assume that we still have British democracy and fair play in our country?

  15. Vanessa
    June 20, 2014

    There is NOTHING democratic about the European Union and that is our government – like it or not. A Westminster government just tinkers around the edges; the deluge of legislation coming from the EU means that all they can do is rubber stamp all the directives.

    Read eureferendum and you will see the “blindness” of all the political class to the EU and the horror in Africa of its Directives on fishing etc. It is the most EVIL world government ever to have emerged.

  16. Kenneth
    June 20, 2014

    I agree that governments must bend to the shifts of public opinion. Quite rightly this is often driven by MPs who have their ear to the ground.

    However what worries me is the source of our information for national issues. Very few of us witness national events first hand. Most of the time we are informed through the media.

    If media were plural we could then poll the various sources and arrive at our own consensus. However we are busy people and therefore take advantage of the dominant source of news, the BBC, for most of our information.

    This begs a few questions:

    (i) to what extent is public opinion coached by the media and the BBC in particular?

    (ii) do politicians and other public figures and bodies short-cut the process by lobbying or even directing policy based on what is seen and heard on the media?

    (ii) do tv executives therefore have more power than elected MPs and the government?

    We are gradually moving towards plural media as we are increasingly using the internet to source news (especially younger people). I hope this will increasingly allow ‘uncoached’ public opinion to be aired in MPs surgeries.

    1. Bazman
      June 21, 2014

      Your going to find that if your dream of a more informed public happens it will not go your right wing small minded conservative way and stories of reduced spending on public services and infrastructure will not be hailed as a great way forward as so many people will realise how much they rely on them.
      Will you be then looking to somehow censor the internet cracking down on blogs about desperation and everyday life on benefits? Or on sources of government information that show the true picture of things and not your deluded Daily Mail world. Just think about what you are saying the population will start to put the pieces together against right wing bigotry attacks on the poor and championing of the rich as our great benefactors. Not the other way around.

      1. Edward2
        June 21, 2014

        Will the BBC ever be reporting rising Government spending, unemployment falling, living standards rising, a strong pound, a high stock exchange index, low interest rates, rising house prices, millions wanting to come here to make a better life for themselves and record income tax receipts, especially from the very rich etc. etc.
        That would be nice.
        All we get is the austerity message like you peddle Baz.

        1. Bazman
          June 22, 2014

          The average person has seen a £1600 pounds per year with woman the hardest hit. The BBC has reported upturns in the economy, but this is on not compensating these falls in living standards. The evidence is all over the high street with payday loan companies and pawnbrokers doing a roaring trade. Except in South Shields where they are closing as everyone is skint. Massive rises in wealth at the top with little reflected in the bottom. Apologist nonsense from our resident Tory Boy.

          1. Edward2
            June 23, 2014

            The great recession which caused the reduction you claim was the result of 13 years of socialist Labour misrule.

            Your post is just routine anti capitalist propaganda from our resident marxist.

          2. Bazman
            June 26, 2014

            Are you telling us labour spending caused the markets to crash? Is this what you are implying? Misrule in believing the bankers and their supporters for sure.

  17. ian wragg
    June 20, 2014

    Explain to me again John. Employment has risen by 10% due mainly to an influx of foreigners over the past 10 years but tax and NI has only increased by 1.3%. After taking into account costs of education, health and future benefits, HOW IS MASS IMMIGRATION HELPING OUR DEFECIT REDUCTION.

  18. formula57
    June 20, 2014

    Mr. Miliband is in some considerable difficulty but it is hard to suppose he is placing himself in some sort of “real/old” Labour comfort zone. This most recent policy, seeing withdrawal of a benefit right (JSA) and its replacement with a conditional allowance, itself means tested but not in relation to the recipient but rather the recipients’ parents, is describable as a Youth Tax. (If we have a “Bedroom Tax”, then it certainly is.) It represents a disgraceful attack upon young people and upon those expected to pay up having been means tested. A flourishing democracy really requires political opponents to expose the wrong-headed thinking that has led Mr Miliband to this sorry pass.

  19. Lindsay McDougall
    June 23, 2014

    It appears that when you have a divided territory, with two clashing cultures, you can either have an electoral system where the winner takes all (democratic but unstable) or you insist on power sharing, which isn’t democratic.

    – Israel and Palestine
    – Northern Ireland
    – Eastern Ukraine
    – Syria
    – Iraq

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